Battle Magic is the latest in Tamora Pierce’s series of Emelan novels, which include The Circle of Magic and The Circle Opens quartets, and takes place during the years between Street Magic and the previously published stand-alone novels The Will of the Empress and Melting Stones.
After the events of Street Magic, plant mage Briar Moss, his teacher Rosethorn, and his student Evvy continue their travels far from their home at the Winding Circle temple as they journey to the country of Gyongxi, where magic and gods make their home in the mountains. Though the God-King of Gyongxi is concerned that the Emperor of Youngjin plans to invade his country, Briar, Rosethorn, and Evvy accept an invitation to travel to the Emperor’s palace to view his famed gardens. While at the palace, they discover that the Emperor does not hesitate to destroy whatever lies in his path, and that he is intent on subjugating the God-King, his people, and even the gods of Gyongxi.
Briar, Rosethorn, and Evvy are separated during the course of the war between Gyongxi and Youngjin, and each character goes on off on their own adventure. Rosethorn, as a dedicate of the Winding Circle temple, fulfills her vows and undertakes a journey through the mountains to protect religious artifacts from the destruction that Youngjin’s army will wreck on Gyongxi. Her journey takes her away from her students and taxes her physical endurance, but as she travels deep into the heart of the mountains, she gains a new strength. Briar follows the God-King into battle and employs his ambient plant magic as a battle mage for Gyongxi, while his twelve-year-old student Evvy, a former Youngjin subject and a stone mage, is taken captive and tortured for information by the Emperor’s army.
During the events of Battle Magic, Briar seems almost unaffected by the war raging around him, focusing on fighting battles with his magic to win the war. However, it is clear that Briar channels his worry for the lives of Rosethorn and Evvy and his rage against the death and destruction he witnesses on the battlefield into his magic as a method of dealing with his situation. Briar’s experiences in Gyongxi’s army leave him with questions about the line between using his powerful magic for fighting and his natural inclination for healing. At one point during Battle Magic, Briar tells Rosethorn that he’d always thought that most mages chose between healing and fighting on the battlefield because they simply don’t have the power to do both—but that’s before Briar learns the difficulty in healing the injured when you were the one who wielded the magic that harmed them. Briar has clearly changed since the beginning of the Emelan novels. Rather than working alone and dishing out vigilante justice as he does at the end of Street Magic, Briar has learned about working as part of a team—first with his sisters, and now as a member of the Gyongxi army, who fight not for vengeance, but for freedom.
What strikes me as the most interesting part about Battle Magic is how Pierce writes about the effects of war on her characters’ psyches. We’ve already seen examples of post-traumatic stress in Briar, Evvy, and Rosethorn during the prequels to Battle Magic. In The Will of the Empress, Briar has flashbacks and nightmares about the men he kills on the battlefield, and in Melting Stones, Evvy turns her heart to stone against humanity after the violence she suffers at the hand of the Emperor. It’s great—albeit heart-wrenching—to finally find out exactly what happened during the war that caused such damage to Briar and Evvy.
What impresses me the most about the Emelan novels is how relatively gritty they were, compared to some of Pierce’s previous works: How, though she’s still writing about children, and with a child’s perspective, she writes about Tris, whose family doesn’t think twice about abandoning her; Sandry, who watches as her family dies around her; Briar and Evvy, who grow up fighting starvation and gangs while living on the streets. The torture that Evvy endures is the most frightening and emotionally painful part of Battle Magic, and her reaction to the trauma is far more immediate than Briar’s—she tries to take away her pain by moving her spirit into the stone that her magic is based on, and she requires time to make a painful spiritual and physical recovery in the heart of the mountains. Afterwards, we see that the trust and love she has learned from Briar and Rosethorn has been broken—she no longer feels comfortable bathing in mixed company, is wary at being touched, and holds herself back from creating new emotional attachments.
It’s worth noting that in Battle Magic, Pierce always reminds us that Briar, Evvy, and Rosethorn are the foreigners in Gyongxi and Youngjin—not the other way around. It’s the conscientious social commentary like this that I appreciate seeing in a work of young adult fantasy, and Pierce always delivers that in spades. Briar and Evvy are conscious of being the outsiders while traveling in foreign lands, forever reminded by Rosethorn of the need to follow the social cues and respect the traditions of each country they travel through.
What I’ve always enjoyed about Tamora Pierce’s writing is her willingness to use fantasy as a vehicle to address subjects that aren’t always brought up in adult fantasy novels. She discusses segregation and xenophobia through Daja and the Trader community. She writes realistically about the physical changes that come with puberty and addresses the importance of birth control with Alanna of Tortall. She allows her characters to choose and enjoy sex as a positive experience—sometimes for comfort, sometimes for love, sometimes for convenience. Her female characters are never created to uphold any idea of purity, or forced to remain chaste—and if they are, then they fight for the right to have their own agency. Her characters, particularly her Emelanese characters, are allowed to be single, to be a part of loving, fulfilling polyamourous relationships, to be sexually fluid, to decide that love and sex are sometimes the same thing and sometimes interchangeable. It’s a very honest part of her writing, and it’s what continues to draw me back to her Emelan novels in particular. It’s very refreshing to fall into a world where a character who decides to engage in a same-sex relationship is not a curiosity, but rather completely ordinary.
I’m always impressed by Pierce’s interpretations of magic—from Briar and Rosethorn’s inventive plant magic involving vine bombs and attacking thorns, to the Youngjin mages’ bead-strings filled with death and disease, to the playful and protective gods of the mountains that tease Briar in the corner of his eye, to the crystal bear who contains the heart and spirit of a mountain—Pierce’s worlds are always filled with imagination, and are always a delight.
Battle Magic is available now from Scholastic Press.
Jenny Moss is pleased to say that she has been reading Tamora Pierce’s books since sixth grade, and she still likes them just as much now as she did then.